Anthony "Tony" Volpe, the last man to control greater Hartford's once-booming, now-moribund gambling and extortion rackets, died Tuesday, prompting a flood of talk about another passed milestone in the city's evolution.
"It's the end of an era, absolutely," said retired FBI agent Donald Brutnell.
Brutnell spent the 1980s and '90s building indictments against Volpe, who was 78, and the dozens of other mobsters, hustlers and gamblers who seemed to live in the after-hours joints and hidden gambling parlors in the city's South End.
Volpe, who was mostly retired and living in West Hartford, died after a prolonged hospitalization in Hartford.
Until his health failed in recent years, he was the mob's senior figure in what was once a profitable central Connecticut network of mob enterprises that included sports betting, loan-sharking, labor racketeering and truck hijacking. Law enforcement and mob sources said he was aligned with a Springfield-based faction of New York's Genovese crime family.
At the end, there was little over which to preside. Most of Volpe's reputed associates in organized crime died over the past decade, including Francesco "Skyball" Scibelli, Adolfo Bruno of Springfield and Americo Petrillo of Old Saybrook. And the mob's money-making businesses — almost all of which were dependent on illegal gambling – were gutted by the proliferation of legal gambling.
"Whether you liked him or not, he was an interesting character and he was part of Hartford's history," said Michael Georgetti, a city lawyer who knew Volpe, as well as many of the police officers who tracked him over at least three decades.
A Volpe contemporary, speaking anonymously, called him "the last of the Mohicans."
Volpe became a newspaper subject in the 1970s as a member of a tough-talking, hard-hitting mob crew that worked in Hartford for Scibelli, a Genovese family capo who kept a summer home in Old Saybrook.
In the late 70's, Volpe, who once played semi-professional football, was sentenced to prison on racketeering charges that included hijacking a truckload of meat and using violence or threats to collect from customers who had borrowed money or lost bets to the mob.
A month before the sentencing, 200 friends gathered at a Rocky Hill restaurant to wish him well in prison. Two hundred more guests would have attended, one guest complained, if the FBI hadn't been outside snapping pictures and taking down license plate numbers.
Volpe was known for lending money at rates that sometime approached 10 percent a week, a contemporary said Tuesday.
"Physically, he was a tough guy," the contemporary said. "He was no slouch. But he was all right. If you needed a favor, he would give you a favor."
By the mid-1980s, Volpe, who once owned a bar on New Britain Avenue, had become the dominant mob figure in Hartford, then an "open" city not subject to the control of any single organized crime group.
That changed with the release from prison of William "The Wild Guy" Grasso of New Haven, who was second in command in the Providence-based Patriarca crime family. Grasso negotiated a deal with Genovese family higher-up's in New York that gave him exclusive control of Hartford.
The Hartford-based Genovese crew was pushed into Springfield. A mob figure familiar with the events said Grasso delivered the news to Volpe personally at what was then Valle's Steak House in the South Meadows.
"Billy took him down there and told him, 'Just stick to your bar and don't let me catch you doing nothing illegal," the mobster said.
By the early 1990's, Grasso had been shot in the head and federal prosecutors had convicted the Patriarca family leadership. Hartford was open again and Volpe re-emerged as the leader of the local rackets.
That made him an FBI target. In 1996, he was convicted again of racketeering charges and sentenced to more than 3 years in prison.
One of Volpe's last arrests was for assault. He was accused of delivering a knock-out punch to a man at a birthday party, arranged by Volpe's daughter, after the man insulted Volpe and tossed a drink in his face. Volpe was acquitted. In his summation, Volpe's lawyer asked jurors what the alleged victim had expected would happen.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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